'God Wills It'

David O'Connell

David O'Connell

video by Joe O'Neill 

New Book Examines the Effectiveness of U.S. Presidents' Religious Rhetoric

by Christine Baksi 

In the new book God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion, Assistant Professor of Political Science David O’Connell reveals the hidden strategy behind presidential religious speech and provides evidence that when U.S. presidents refer to God or Scripture, public opinion typically goes against the president, the media reacts harshly and Congress fails to do as the president wants. The book is available now through Transaction Publications

“U.S. presidents have consistently turned to religion as a means to increase their support, and time and time again this language has been rejected,” says O’Connell.

In God Wills It, O’Connell uses experimental data, case studies, speech transcripts and editorial coverage of presidential addresses to weave together a compelling narrative. He provides ample historical context and analyzes the outcomes of using religious rhetoric to defend presidential decisions on war, environmental policy, civil rights and scandal. 

In the chapter “All God’s Children,” O’Connell illustrates how John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson used religious rhetoric to advance civil rights legislative agendas. And in the chapter “I Have Sinned,” O’Connell recounts the events leading up to Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the religious references he used to ask his family, country and Congress for forgiveness. Other chapters explore Jimmy Carter’s religious arguments for his energy policies, Reagan’s spiritual claims for higher defense budgets and Bush’s rhetorical justification for the War on Terror. 

Even though O'Connell illustrates that using religious rhetoric is an ineffective leadership choice, presidents continue to make these kinds of claims. According to O’Connell, this is a natural consequence of the overconfidence many presidents have in their persuasive abilities. “The book can teach politicians to be more humble in terms of what they think they can accomplish through their words alone,” says O’Connell. “There is a place in American politics for religious rhetoric, but this kind of language can’t perform miracles.”

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Published February 2, 2015